Although the frozen TV dinner made its debut in the 1950s, sales of frozen meals and entrees didn't proliferate until the 1970s, when the home microwave gained popularity. Mom's new microwave became both a thawing device and cooker, combined for convenience, and set her free from the stove.
The recent tough economy has not hurt frozen foods. As consumers returned to dining at home rather than at restaurants, frozen food sales grew. When consumers do eat out, they favor fast-food dining, which uses heavy amounts of frozen foods, according to Grant Thornton, the Chicago-based accounting and business advisory firm. Even high-end restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon. At the Fat Duck, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in England, Birdseye frozen peas are used in its pea mousse because they are processed so much younger and faster than fresh peas, reports Slate, a popular online magazine.
According to market research published in April 2009 from Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., U.S. retail sales of frozen foods for 2008 totaled just less than $51.8 billion, which was a 6.5 percent increase over sales in 2008. During the 2004-2008 period, sales rose 25.4 percent, or $10.5 billion, overall, for a respectable compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.8 percent. The frozen breakfast foods classification enjoyed the highest CAGR (7.9 percent) during the period.
As for the future, frozen foods sales are expected to increase 25 percent by 2013, up to $64.8 billion – whether or not the world economy improves. Analysts consider them "recession proof," and expect frozen foods to be buoyed by new convenience and health-targeted introductions. This dual aim of combining healthier recipes – in line with the overall consumer trend – with the convenience of frozen foods, is expected to be strongest in breakfast foods, vegetables, appetizers, snacks and sides.
Most recently, calorie-controlled, lower sodium, high-fiber entrees are sizzling. In fact, some frozen foods are healthier than food preserved through other methods. Freezing prevents the invasion of food by micro-organisms without chemical additives, heat sterilization or loss of nutrients, and using stabilizers can conserve the taste with little to no loss of flavor.
Delivering on texture and taste
"The main challenge in developing frozen foods is delivering on product texture and taste after a food has been cooked, frozen, pushed through a distribution network, brought into the home, then thawed and microwaved," says Diana Briceno, marketing manager–wholesome at National Starch Food Innovation (www.nationalstarch.com), Bridgewater, N.J. "After all that, the product needs to look and taste like it has just been cooked."
The freezer is a harsh environment for food systems. Ice crystals can form in a food product during freezing, which has a negative impact on the product's appearance and texture. Some ingredients, such as flours and native starches, that often are preferred for taste, opacity and a clean label declaration, do not hold up in the freezer. They easily form a gel upon freezing, causing sauces that should deliver a silky, smooth texture to become grainy and watery.
"Water management in a frozen food system is critical for the success of that product," says Leslie Carr, National Starch's senior associate in savory applications. "If the water is not managed properly through the application of texturizing ingredients that can withstand the rigors of freezing and thawing, then the water is released from the food during storage. That is syneresis," she explains. "Typical examples can be found in the home when thawing homemade sauces and entrees like lasagna. After thawing, an unsightly watery mass can be found at the top of the container."
National Starch's Novation line can help manufacturers develop clean-label frozen products while controlling syneresis. Two product lines have application in frozen foods. "The Novation Prima range of functional waxy maize starches increases freeze-thaw stability, so the product can be frozen and thawed without losing its appealing visual and textural properties," explains Briceno. "These starches perform just like modified starches but can be simply labeled as ‘corn starch.' Novation rice starches are a second option. They also provide freeze-thaw stability and can be simply labeled as ‘rice starch.' Both products maintain their structural properties and functionality throughout the process, withstanding the cooking and freezing process at the manufacturer, and thawing and microwaving in the home."
Two trends have been identified by National Starch. "Consumers are looking for premium, restaurant-quality products that are made with fresh ingredients and have the convenience of freezing and microwaving," explains Briceno. "The second is natural, a consumer trend with very long legs and wide reach in the industry.
Consumers have not let up on their demand for all-natural products, especially those made with recognizable ingredients you would normally find in your mother's cupboard." At the very least, she says, processors are working on label simplification.
Finding the right shortening
Shortening, margarine and oils are used in the manufacture of some frozen foods, and there are some challenges in new product development, according to Roger Daniels, director of R&D and new business development at Bunge Oils, Bradley Ill., part of Bunge North America (www.bungenorthamerica.com).
"In bakery dough products -- which a consumer finish-bakes into biscuits, pies, cookies and pastries -- the shortening, margarine and oils impart tenderness to the dough and structure or flakiness to the finished baked products," he explains. "In these applications, the shortening, margarine and oils must provide balance in terms of functionality, nutrition and consistency for each of four milestones."
Daniels says these milestones include:
- The factory -- Do these ingredients function as the product is assembled; is the dough sheetable/extrudable, etc.)?
- On the shelf – Does the product function through the supply chain distribution (holds its shape and consistency, for example)?
- On the plate – Does the product deliver the quality attributes of taste, quality, convenience and price?
- In the consumer – Does the product deliver the nutritional attributes desired by the consumer?
"In frozen potato and fish stick applications, the oil is the frying medium prior to flash freezing," says Daniels. "So the processor is challenged to find an appropriate oil or shortening which does not contribute to oil wicking from the application product through the package, and lack of crumb adhesion to the application product.
"Bakers seek fats and oils ingredients that impart structure, which traditionally was provided by partially hydrogenated shortenings. As nutrition science has advanced, there has been a drive away from ingredients that contain trans fats."
Bunge provides options based on three technologies. The first is reduced trans fat approaches using patented partial hydrogenation technology that reduces trans by greater than 80 percent and the sum of trans and saturates by about 33 percent. The second option is next-generation oils, for example high-oleic canola oil and low-linolenic soybean oil, often as blendable components. The third is enzymatically interesterified shortenings, the result of a patent-pending process that enables sustainable, functional shortenings with good organoleptic properties."